This Was Pompeii

Time for tourism

At the seafood restaurant I used to work at, we served fried food on plastic trays lined with paper offering a basic drawing of Cape Cod. The peninsula’s outline included the detail of our two major highways stretching eastward until the roads merged into one, curling up towards Provincetown. Every summer I served hundred of tourists, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t pull that placemat out once a week and utilize it as a NAVAID for folks seeing directions.

“So where’s Chappaquiddick?” a twentysomething guy asked one night as I pointed out various places of interest. I paused and looked at him. “Here,” I pointed towards Martha’s Vineyard and looked at him sideways.  It was the first time that anyone had asked about a place of infamy that was tied to the departed Senator Ted Kennedy. My customer continued.

“Do you know if they sell commemorative bottles of wine or something out there. Memorial Mary Jo bottles, maybe?”

I couldn’t be sure if he was joking or serious, and for that I was unsure of how to frame my response. My off-hours persona wanted to ask him what the fuck kind of question that was. Luckily for me, the guy didn’t allow time to prepare a response. “Well,” he said,”I suppose that might be in poor taste.” He looked down at the map.

“Yeah. Maybe,” I agreed before pushing the grease-free mat toward him and heading into the kitchen. Wow. Tourists can be just the worst.

I learned so much about out of owners during those five years working in a seaside town. And I don’t say that as some kind of haughty observation. Heck, I don’t consider myself to be any better of a tourist than most of the people I waited on. Take the day where I am writing all of this down. On this day I am a horrible tourist who is in the process of squandering a golden opportunity.

Vesuvius. Not on our Sunday Morning.

Picture it, Naples 2016. I could hear the rain falling on a dark Sunday morning at the start of October. I awoke in a hotel on the sea and was greeted to a view of thick clouds that were being constantly stabbed by lightning bolts. It was like a cartoon. Normally at this hour, you could look out the window and enjoy pristine views of the Naples Gulf and Castel dell’Ovo. Not today. Instead, a quick scan of my weather app confirmed that rain would be our Sunday forecast. A pity, because this was the only day of our itinerary where we could go and visit Pompeii.

Weather forecast calls for going back to bed

While travel affords you the chance to experience places you might never otherwise see, the tradeoff is that such outings are often take-it-or-leave-it. We either go to Pompeii, or we don’t go at all on this trip. And who knows— we may never get back here at all. So, after scowling a bit more at the lightning bolts, I gathered up my interpretation of rain gear and joined my travel companions.

This might be the only good thing about today…

Before leaving Naples proper, we dashed through the dark morning for a brief coffee stop at a nearby bar. We were a group of four- with three of us being American and the other, thankfully, an Italian. As we cradled our tiny cups of shot sized gold, our Italian asked the woman running the till about what might be a good activity for today. She glanced outside at the streets, watching the water gather height in the puddles and said, “Stay home.” Later I would also learn that she also suggested that if we were going to Pompeii, we should bring a dinghy. Fantastico.

We’re here. Yay.

But as I said before, this was our only free day to make this pilgrimage. Still, a nagging sensation reminded me that I totally could have stayed in bed today without my protest. But that was a moot point.  As we made our way to the excavated ruins, we saw the traffic starting to back up before we even got to the exit on the highway. Much to my chagrin, the tour buses were as plentiful the rain. All of us together, we were going in.

Piovere a catinelle. Italian for: Don’t make me go out there.

Now I don’t want to sound like some uncultured Yank trammeling a historical site amongst so many national treasures— but that very well might be the case. In my defense, I did study the 79 A.D. eruption while at university, and one of my favorite college folk singers even sang a song about Pompeii. I’m not exactly disinterested in being here.

Wait, can we just stay in this café and enjoy Pompeii by osmosis?

We parked our rental car and headed to the back entrance, armed with newly-purchased umbrellas because Mother Nature was still bent on having a shitty day. Before going on in though, our Italian, the de facto fearless leader, scouted a calorietastic coffee spot where we could properly fortify ourselves. Once hyped up on caffeine and sfogliatelle, we took charge of our umbrellas and headed for the door.

Oh goody. It’s Everybody Gets In Free Day.

Many countries offer free entry into cultural attractions once a month. For Pompeii, we had the dumb luck of visiting on Italy’s Domenica al Museo.  So, while the rain might have normally encouraged a lesser human flow, today this would not be the case. You gotta take the good with the bad, and while processing my second espresso of the day, I still saw this break as quite as quite fortuitous.

Clear as mud. Just follow these Sharpie annotations.

Before going in, we did acquire a map to accompany the world’s crappiest audioguide. When given the map, we were warned that the Roman numerals contained on it would not correspond to the markings we’d see inside. No matter, the friendly guy provided us with a few flicks of his black marker highlighted the “best” areas, and with that we were on our way.

Her face says it all

The map was actually kind of helpful, truth be told. The amphitheater, for example, was easy to locate: it’s oval shaped and situated just on the other side of the entrance. Who needs this map? The covered areas of the ampitheater were jammed with tourists seeking shelter from the rain, but we took the silver lining approach and wandered into the center to enjoy largely unobstructed panoramic views. And we got wet.

Pompeii lives on!

I said that lots of tourists crowded the inner rings of the amphitheater, but while I found it interesting, not many were walking around to see the exhibition on artists who have used this space in modern day. The rain continued to pound away outside, and I for that reason took a leisurely pace in learning about Pink Floyd’s 1970s exploits.

Slippery when wet

Ahh but most of Pompeii is outside. It is, after all, an unearthed town that had a population of 11,000 when all activity came to a terrifying halt. We snaked through streets and ducked into the few covered buildings whenever we could. I tried to maintain the enthusiasm that I had shored up for Pink Floyd—but as the rain continued to fall, so did my happiness.

A portrait of my trusty travel companions, obviously taking in far more of this than I was able.

Quickly my mindset began to focus only on the subpar and now rain-softened map. I wanted to figure out how to “appreciate” all of the most important sites in the most expeditious way.  My attempts at navigation, however, were continually foiled as I got turned around in the largely unmarked streets and alleys. With slippery terrain underfoot, I spent more time looking down than I did studying surroundings that, on any other day, really would have been stupefying.

Well-preeserved means that there are relatively few orientation signs to be found…

Whenever I begin to lose enjoyment in an activity, I know that I start to get more quiet than usual. This is because I downshift to focusing all of my energy into just getting through that particular experience. Frescoes and preserved bread artifacts. Wonderful. Suddenly my foot slipped off a rock and plunged straight into a puddle. Not fantastic. The umbrellas that were keeping all of us tourists dry, to me they became half domes with spines that my eyeballs fixated on avoiding lest I sacrifice my vision. My sights were on a constant cycle of archeological appreciation, foot placement, and tourist avoidance. Repeat.

If you look on my map, maybe you will figure out what this was.

It was at about this time where I’d decided that I had seen enough of Pompeii. Although it is never consciously premeditated, as my friends and I continued to walk, I suddenly announced that I’d go and use the restroom. It was my version of, “I’ll be right back”— when really what it means is that I’m not coming back at all. Whether or not my friends realized what I was doing, they nodded and off I went. I was released.

Escape from Pompeii…

I did in fact go and use the restroom. From the area that houses the modern day toilet facilities, you get a neat bird’s eye view of the overall  grounds. Once on high, I did a quick scan of the Pompeii’s rooftop-less rooftops before figuring out which way I would go. While I truly love my friends, I didn’t want to run into them again, lest I be forced to visit more of the ruins. I’m terrible. Moving quickly with one shoe sloshing, I held the imperfect map in my hand and made a break for the exit.

Is it just me, or should these two also be in bed?

And truth be told, the keepers of Pompeii have done a fantastic job of fusing old and new so that there are points of interest for everyone. I swear I didn’t lose sight of this as I zipped past each one. If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace’s excellent nonfiction essay that is largely known as, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, then you’ll see which way I was favoring the exit to any sculptures.

And we have the souvenir suppliers

Once I was safely outside, I made my way to the perimeter past all of the kitschy trinkets, guidebooks, and undoubtedly bottles of commemorative Pompeii wine that my old Cape Cod tourist would have purchased. Me, I’m just as bad as him but didn’t buy anything. Instead, I walked through the rain, making sure to text my friends and at least give the impression that I wasn’t a complete a-hole. I had no idea where they were inside the amusement park, but I was happy to wait for as them as long as they needed to enjoy Pompeii. Me, I had simply reached saturation point.

Old meets new. It’s all about necessity.

As I waited for another hour or so, I wandered around the modern part of the city. I stopped into Carrefour in order to pick up some of local coffee (so cheap and so delicious). Next I found an awning to station myself under where I commenced scribbled out this blog entry.  The most entertaining part of my time came when two women asked me for directions in Italian. I was largely useless in my nonverbal communication skills, but still took it as a quasi-compliment that I might be mistaken for someone vaguely local.

Finally making good use of this map

Maybe it’s because I travel so much on my own, but really I am completely happy to spend time by myself and even find entertainment in the smaller things. People watching-— to include the tragicomedy of cars zipping by on cobblestone streets and splashing unwitting tourists—all told was mildly entertaining. I kept an eye out for my friends and looked forward to hearing reports on everything I had missed out because I don’t always fully appreciate opportunities as they come.

There will be another day. Maybe.

Of course, on that day I did devise plans to come back when the weather was better. And maybe I will. But even if this never happens, in my adult brain I at least recognize and respect what I need to do for myself when I am not having a good time. I understand that it is completely okay to bail. Even if you are in a place that is as unique as Pompeii.

You might notice that this entry was first drafted last October, and it is only now that I am getting around to posting it. It has not escaped my attention that Operation Pompeii will now follow my visit to the Mont St. Michel, where I proclaimed that I would have been completely happy to visit the island in the driving rain. What can I say? I never claimed to be a master of logic.

Refueled and rewarded. La vita è bella.

Eventually my nonjudgmental friends showed up, and next we zoomed up Mount Vesuvius in order to check out the view. Of course we were stuck in the clouds, but happily our fearless Italian managed to find a local restaurant offering cheap but fabulous eats. Much like the coffee spots he had found for us in the morning, this was a stretch of time that I truly enjoyed. More than the greater cultural backdrop, it was the restaurant and even more so the company that made my journey to Pompeii a success. Maybe being inside helped a bit too.

Okay now I’d like to stick around…

The rest of our trip was all work and travel days—and wouldn’t you know it the skies returned to their usual Tyrrhenian Blue. It felt like Pompeii was a lifetime ago, and our warmed skulls took in Naples for all that it had to offer in the early morning and evenings.

I shouldn’t be so critical of the tourists who came to Cape Cod while I was working there. Everyone has their own expectations, and even more importantly everyone’s got their own stuff that they’d like to experience. I might not be the most engaged junior archaeologist, but I do know that one day I’ll go back to Naples. The coffee is just too damn good. And when I do return, perhaps I’ll hit up Herculaneum. I hear that there are far less tourists on that site. And maybe even less when it’s pouring buckets of rain on my head.